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Robots to install optical networks

Broken roadways, traffic congestion, commuter headaches -- these are the unfortunate byproducts of deploying fiber optic networks underneath our city streets. Yet, two enterprising North American comp...


January 1, 2001  


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Broken roadways, traffic congestion, commuter headaches — these are the unfortunate byproducts of deploying fiber optic networks underneath our city streets. Yet, two enterprising North American companies — one on each side of the Canada/U.S. border — believe the solution to these problems can be found in our sewers.

Stream Intelligent Networks of Toronto and CityNet Telecommunications of Silver Spring, MD, have both recently debuted separate technologies for bringing high-speed broadband access directly into buildings, using robots to install fiber optic networks through a city’s existing sewer system.

Stream has introduced STAR (Sewage Telecommunication Access by Robot), designed by Robotics Cabling Company (RCC) of Germany, to Canada and completed its first installation in Mississauga, ON in November, 2000. CityNet’s SAM (Sewer Access Module) technology was designed by its Swiss partner Ka-Te, and was brought into the U.S. last year, with its first implementation in Omaha, NB last October.

This type of robotic technology was developed in Japan in the early 1990s and then found its way into the European market a few years ago. Both STAR and SAM have already been installed in various cities in Asia and Europe, but it is the most current version of the robotic technology that has now reached North American soil. Yet, while STAR and SAM share a similar past, the tiny robots (most are between 85 and 100 kg.) do have their differences.

“The similarity is that we are both using sewer systems to deploy the fiber optics,” says Sini Stojicic, VP of Sales at Ca-Botics Fiber Systems International, the North American partner of RCC. “The differences are in the applications, the speed of the installation and some technical details.”

Both STAR and SAM, which are equipped cameras to monitor operations, are fed into the sewer system through manholes and can operate in pipes as small as 200 millimetres (eight inches in diameter). With Stream’s STAR, once cable has been fed into the storm sewer, the robot drills holes in the pipe wall and fixes the cable to the wall at three-foot intervals using tie-bolts. Instead of using a single cable fastened with an anchor system to the top of the sewer, CityNet’s SAM installs stainless steel alloy rings to support the fiber optic cables inside of the sewer pipes.

Yet despite the technical and other differences, the systems are being utilized to reach common installation goals: greater speed (up to eight times faster — or approximately 800 metres per day — than traditional construction provisioning) and greater effectiveness.

“We have been searching for faster, more economical ways of deploying our network,” says Bill Chapman, Senior Project Manager at Stream, “specifically looking at ways of providing this network without disrupting roads.”

Mr. Chapman says Stream has found this with the robotic technology. It can be used year-round — including harsh Canadian winters — and it eliminates the traffic congestion, noise, pollution and disruption that typically accompany open-trench cabling construction.

The first application of the STAR technology in Mississauga involved a five-kilometre network connecting 14 buildings, and was completed in 21 days. Chapman, who was responsible for this project, says the company will be talking to other municipalities about the technology and is already discussing pilot plans with the City of Toronto.

On the other side of the border, CityNet Telecommunications, Inc. is working to eliminate the same types of problems as Stream. The two-year old telecom and broadband infrastructure company touts this installation method for its ability to bypass slower copper lines and the bottleneck — known as the last mile — by connecting buildings directly to the large “beltway” fiber rings around a city.

CityNet will deliver “dark” fiber optic networks to telecom carriers and network service providers, who will then activate — or “light” — the network when they begin using the fiber optic cable to provide services to building tenants.

“Carriers and network service providers are using old copper lines never meant to carry vast quantities of data, voice, and video,” says Robert G. Berger, president and CEO of CityNet. “These lines just can’t support the current demand and that leads to a bottleneck and slowdown in the overall network.

“It’s like driving a Formula One racecar into town, transferring to stagecoach for the trip across town, then back into the racecar speeding out of the city and around the globe.”

CityNet has already reached agreements to provide the technology to Albuquerque, NM and St. Paul, MN. While there are no plans to install the technology in Canada yet, the company says it will deploy the technology in more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and internationally this year.


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